The capital of Alaska handles almost a million cruise passengers a year and is only accessible by sea or air
As a state capital, Juneau is like no other. Sandwiched between the coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean in the Alaskan panhandle, the city is only accessible by plane or ship: there are no roads in or out. Found in the Gastineau Channel, it is the second largest city in the United States by area, despite having a population of just 32,000.
The city, sometimes known as ‘little San Francisco’, is among the most important when it comes to Alaskan cruises, handling almost one million passengers a year, most in the summer season. From Silversea to Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America, Royal Caribbean to adventure specialists UnCruise, nearly every line that sails to Alaska calls at Juneau.
The city itself is charming: the Alaskan Brewing Company is well worth a visit; there are some excellent seafood restaurants, as you might expect; and the zip-line from Capitol Hill offers spectacular views (and a pretty fun descent). There are a few great bars, too, such as the Red Dog Saloon (278 S Franklin St), an old-style saloon where guests can enjoy live music, drinks and Alaskan food. But Juneau – like the rest of Alaska – is about exploring nature: be it the vertiginous mountains, the sprawling lakes, the intruding glaciers, or the myriad wildlife. Whale watching is hugely popular – you’re virtually guaranteed to see humpbacks and sometimes even killer whales, and is thus one of the most popular shore excursions from Juneau. With Princess Cruises, for example, guests are taken to beautiful Auke Bay, where they board a water jet-powered catamaran specially designed for wildlife viewing. Steller sea lions, harbour seals, Dall’s porpoises, bald eagles, Sitka blacktail deer and, occasionally, bears are all on show as well as whales (the line promises a $100 refund if you don’t see one).
Nearby is also Mendenhall, a huge, 20km-long river of ice – easily Alaska’s most accessible glacier. There are plenty of ways to experience it: whether that’s a hike, a visit to the scenic photo point and educational centre, or something more extravagant. Carnival Cruise Line, for example, offers a four-and-a-half-hour trekking excursions: Alaska is the perfect destination for the active holidaymaker who wants adventure, but given how immediate the beauty of the region is, it can be enjoyed from comfort, too.
Holland America Line, which has been sailing to Alaska for 70 years, offers guests the thrilling chance to take a glacier helicopter tour and a dog sledding tour. Only from the air can you truly get a sense of the enormity of Mendenhall, and thus many operators offer this sort of experience. Dog sledding is Alaska’s state sport, so meeting professional mushers and their canine friends is an amazing way to spend a few hours.
Nugget Falls, a waterfall that drops 115m onto a sandbar in Mendenhall Lake, is a must see. There’s also Douglas Island, from where you can also see the Mendenhall Glacier across the water. Cruise lines also offer kayaking excursions here, where guests can get up close to wildlife.
For a bird’s-eye view of Juneau, guests can also take a five-minute aerial tram ride to the top of Mount Roberts, with a panoramic vantage point 550m above the city.
From the 1880s until the last original mine was shut in the 1940s, gold mining supported the city, which was put on the map by Richard Harris and Joe Juneau, miners and prospectors from Canada. Gold was discovered by the Native American Chief Kowee, but the Canadian pair profited from it, loading approximately 1,000 pounds of gold ore back to Sitka, Alaska, where they lived. Joe Juneau eventually persuaded – or rather bribed – townsfolk to name the city after him (it was originally called Harrisburg), and at one time it was home to three of the world’s largest gold mines: the Alaska-Juneau, the Alaska Gastineau mine and the Treadwell mine.
Guests have the chance to trace the route taken by Juneau and Harris – and Chief Kowee, who received almost no credit – in their search for gold. As part of this excursion, Carnival Cruise Line takes guests to Gold Creek Salmon Bake, where Alaskan-caught salmon is grilled over an open fire, with the beautiful Salmon Creek waterfall nearby.